ON THE RECORD: Swing!, Styne, and Russell Bennett

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Swing!, Styne, and Russell Bennett SWING! (Sony Classical SK 89122)
"It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing," goes the familiar refrain. Yes, you've heard that song before, and not infrequently if you attend musical revues on Broadway. But you get a joyfully swinging version of it in Swing!, which sets the tone for the bouncingly jubilant musical now at the St. James. A first rate music department and distinctive performances from the four featured vocalists make this CD a highly-satisfying delight.

SWING! (Sony Classical SK 89122)
"It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing," goes the familiar refrain. Yes, you've heard that song before, and not infrequently if you attend musical revues on Broadway. But you get a joyfully swinging version of it in Swing!, which sets the tone for the bouncingly jubilant musical now at the St. James. A first rate music department and distinctive performances from the four featured vocalists make this CD a highly-satisfying delight.

Ann Hampton Callaway, making her Broadway debut, is well known in the cabaret world. She has a coolly, authoritative way about her; there isn't a syllable she sings that isn't precisely placed in her rich, hearty voice. "Bounce Me Brother (with a Solid Four)" serves as a jiving showcase, with Callaway trading licks with the trumpeter. She also provides one of the finest renditions of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "Blues in the Night (My Momma Done Tol' Me)" that you're likely to hear. (Callaway plays piano on this track; she also wrote some of the evening's songs.) Everett Bradley -- another Broadway newcomer -- is an unusual talent, kind of a combination of Gregory Hines and Ray Bolger. He is a whirlwind of energy; singing, dancing, playing the drums, and - like Ms. Callaway - providing some of his own material. "Bli-Blip" makes a good courtship duet for the pair, and Bradley does especially well with the exuberant but unfortunately-titled "Throw That Girl Around." (This makes more sense in context, as the number builds into a grand challenge dance with the girls virtually flying through the air.)

Callaway and Bradley are joined by Laura Benanti, who played Maria opposite Richard Chamberlain last season in The Sound of Music. Benanti is quite a musical theatre find. She sings, she dances, and -- having seen her in a reading last year, I can tell you that she can also act. She shines in "Cry Me a River" - with a fine trombone solo by Steve Armour - and "Hit Me with a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce." Billed somewhat lower than the others but no less important to the proceedings is Casey MacGill, who serves more or less as a bandleader (although he is not in fact the conductor). MacGill sings the fine rendition of "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got that Swing)" which opens the show, and gives a distinctive spin to everything he touches.

Absent from the CD, for obvious reasons, are the many expert dancers in the company. Some of their exuberance spills over to the instrumentals. While this seventy-six minute album can't include all the non-vocals, I'm especially glad they included the smokey "Harlem Nocturne" - which is an unforgettable number as performed in the theatre by Caitlin Carter and bassist Conrad Korsch - and an infectious Duke Ellington delight called "Dancers in Love," marked by finger snaps.

More than in most musicals, Swing! is a close collaboration between the director/choreographer (the impressively inventive Lynne Taylor Corbett) and the music department. I would normally look askance at a show crediting nine musical arrangers (including Callaway, Bradley and MacGill), but the results here speak for themselves. The eight-piece band, The Gotham City Gates, is wonderful; most of them are drafted into solo action in one number or another. Music Director Jonathan Smith, at the piano, keeps the joint jumping, and orchestrator Harold Wheeler has done an expert job making these mostly old songs sound fresh and new. Michael Rafter is called the Music Supervisor, so I suppose he deserves credit, too. The Swing! music is wonderfully realized, making this a truly swinging CD.

I'M THE GREATEST STAR! (Jay CDJAY 1335)
There is little more exciting to musical comedy fans than the sound of a bright, new overture. Composer Jule Styne instinctively knew this, so he made sure that his shows had rousing overtures -- even when the scores, themselves, were not all that good. While he worked with many different orchestrators, one-time bandleader Styne knew what he wanted, and insisted on getting it.

Back in 1992 conductor Jack Everly recorded all sixteen of Styne's Broadway overtures for the London-based label TER. (Not included were overtures to three Styne musicals that closed out of town, one that was written for London, or Styne's final show, which opened in 1993). These were released in the U.K. on two separate discs, Everything's Coming up Roses and I'm the Greatest Star. RCA released an expanded version of Volume One in 1994; Jay Records has now finally released Volume Two here.

Styne fans will want the new disc for three items previously unavailable on CD: the full overture to Darling of the Day, which was cut from the original production and thus differs from what is heard on that show's cast album; the jazzy opening of Tony Richardson's 1963 production of Brecht's Arturo Ui, set in 1920s Chicago; and the previously-unrecorded Look to the Lilies. This last belies the truth that all Jule Styne overtures sound great. Lilies seemed to me, when I saw it on a high school field trip in 1970, to be Styne's worst score. Now that I've had the chance to hear it again, my opinion holds -- unless it gets beat out by The Red Shoes (1993). Which, as it happens, recycled some music from Lilies. This is made up for by One Night Stand, which closed during previews in 1980 but has a couple of jaunty songs and lifts the spirits like all Jule Styne overtures. Except Look to the Lilies.

And OFF THE RECORD. . . .
Show Boat. Girl Crazy. Of Thee I Sing. Anything Goes. Oklahoma! Annie Get Your Gun. Finian's Rainbow. Kiss Me, Kate. South Pacific. The King and I. My Fair Lady. What did all of these shows have in common, besides some nifty tunes? Orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, that's what. It seems remarkable that Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, Berlin, Loewe and other top composers insistently turned to one man, again and again, to translate their music. If only we had a Bennett's-eye view of what went on.

Well, we do. Bennett (1894-1981) left behind an unpublished autobiography, which has now made it into print as The Broadway Sound; The Autobiography and Selected Essays of Robert Russell Bennett, Edited by George J. Ferencz (University of Rochester Press). It is not easy reading, as Bennett wasn't much of a writer and seems to devote a couple of lines to every trumpet player he ever met on the street. And he spends far more time on his years studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger than on any of his shows. But you also have a whole slew of new first-hand anecdotes about Broadway's great composers, from someone who appreciated their talent but was not in awe of them. All of them seem to have been more in awe of Bennett, in fact, with his intensive training, Guggenheim Fellowship, and modern music awards. (When Kern's publisher told him that Show Boat was the finest thing he'd ever written, Kern replied "Well, I just wish Russell Bennett thought so.")

While most of Bennett's famous "clients" have been written about extensively, he discusses them simply as guys he was working with -- and the personalities show through. Kern, who appears to have been Bennett's favorite, when angry looked like "a tough little bulldog." Gershwin came by his famously egocentric personality naturally: "he was so amazed by the music that came out of his piano, that the little social graces seemed unimportant. He was his own great problem and his own great fulfillment." And while we know that Gershwin occasionally liked to conduct performances, Bennett adds that the shows invariably suffered due to the composer's unfamiliarity with the non-musical segments. But there was no stopping George. Porter was the sort of person who, when faced with a problem, would hire somebody to solve it. Bennett tells of a conductor threatening Porter in the heat of an argument; Porter returned to the theatre with a bodyguard. He compares Porter's well-publicized struggle to save his legs (which were crushed in a riding accident in 1937) with Rodgers' silent, twenty-five year battle with cancer. Rodgers was a charmless man, even to Bennett: he "took great satisfaction in hiding all the warmth and tenderness he ever had, in order to come out with it in song and surprise us all." The only one among them deserving the genius label, in Bennett's view, was Oscar Hammerstein. Bennett's first Broadway job was doing an arrangement of Porter's "Old Fashioned Garden" in 1919; his last was the infamous Mata Hari in 1967, with a great amount of musical theatre history in between. (And yes, he gives us a Mata Hari story.) Also included are eight of Bennett's magazine essays on orchestration. While The Broadway Sound is highly uneven in its writing, it will no doubt be of great interest readers interested in the musical side of musicals.

-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (now available from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books (from Schirmer). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com